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‘Misleading’ and ‘Deceptive’: Google Under Fire

Justin Pen and Andrew Passarello investigate the under-reported outcome of Google’s mammoth legal battle in Australia.

The ostensibly benevolent, internet giant Google has evaded Australian headlines recently despite losing a mammoth legal battle against the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) early last April. The case against Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s search-engine-turned-internet-colossus appeared before the Federal Court, targeting the company’s enormous coffers.

AdWords, the goose whose golden eggs accounted for 96% of Google’s $39 billion revenue in 2011, was found to have facilitated the dissemination of a multiplicity of ‘misleading’ and ‘deceptive’ sponsored advertisements. Affected firms included Harvey World Travel, Honda and Alpha Dog Training among others. Those searching for the aforementioned companies were presented with links to competitor’s websites due to the submission of misrepresentative search terms. While it was the responsibility of individual businesses to submit their own key words and phrases, the Federal Court made it clear that Google was not merely an innocent channel of output, but could and should be held accountable for the input of any misrepresentative terms.

Couching it in the slightly sexier jargon of a crime noir; while the bullets belonged to numerous corporate players, Google’s AdWords algorithm was the triggerman that shot and wounded consumer sovereignty.

Whether or not Google ‘would’ pay up, however, is contestable given the infamous difficulty countries have had in exacting punitive damages against multinational corporations. Indeed, despite closing almost $1 billion of its annual earnings within our shores, Google delivered less than 0.1% back to the Australian Taxation Office.

Google Adwords in action

Between its 350 million Gmail users, 800 million YouTube accounts, and 250 million Android smartphones in circulation, chances are you’re using a Google service before even considering the ubiquitous search engine. Up until recently, Google has been the only company to successfully infiltrate every aspect of the online experience. Even though social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are beginning to challenge Google’s autocracy, as the web transforms from a space of searching into a space of sharing, it’s important to note what Mark Zuckerberg (CEO Facebook) and Biz Stone (Co-Founder Twitter) aren’t doing. These rising tigers may as well be sleeping; they aren’t launching satellites to Google Map the earth, they’re not investing billions in renewable energy for Google Green, nor are they designing space elevators or driverless cars for Google X, a secret experimental research laboratory within Google.

Google’s mission statement ‘Don’t Be Evil’ has not only informed but fuelled this innovative, dynamic and seemingly chaotic engagement with the rest of the world. However, for a company so steeped in philanthropy and held in such high regard worldwide, Google is facing a myriad of threats both corporate and governmental. Anti-trust officials from the European Union, flanked by unlikely ally, Microsoft, have criticised Google’s online practices – in particular, purported claims that its search engine prioritises Google products and software over its competitors distorting market freedom. Europe’s competition commissioner has initiated further investigations scrutinising this multi-platform empire.

Brin fired back in an interview with The Guardian. While his description of recent events may have resembled the unhinged chatter of a conspiracy theorist warning about the “very powerful forces that have lined up against the open internet on all sides and around the world”, his dogged and hopeful vision for the future of the internet painted him as a digital messiah. He reserved his harshest criticism for gated communities like Facebook, and the American entertainment industry’s recent sojourn into Washington. Brin asserted that Facebook’s insular and possessive approach to information “stifled innovation,” and coupled with the recent attempts to push through the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act legislation in the US, flew in the face of the ‘ethos of openness’ that the internet had originally promulgated. It’s this dedication to freedom that exemplifies Brin and Page’s vow, ‘Don’t Be Evil’.

Fatalists and fan-boys need not lose too much sleep, despite the recent tumult, domestic and abroad. Last month, Google revealed that profits had surged to 61%, totalling a turnover of $3 billion over its first quarter. Indeed, the total value of Google’s tradeable shares ($198 billion) is sitting comfortably alongside Finland and Denmark’s Gross Domestic Product, $195 billion and $206 billion, respectively. If the contentment of the Danes and the Fins balance between economic sustainability and social progressivism are anything to go by, Brin and Page must be pretty pleased with themselves given the company’s harmony between soaring profits and lofty altruism.